The future work from home studio
Anyone following Greg and I know our annual OS pilgrimage, where we live ‘somewhere else’ for a month, always included meeting local designers. We’d make contact before we left Australia, asking if they were interested in meeting to talk about the business of design. Hardly anyone said no. (Apart from in Paris – there everyone said no, but that’s another story.)
We didn’t have a set agenda, but the questions were often about how they worked: physically (the size of their business), sustainably, (their work/life balance) and profitably (was it easy to make money). I can’t remember ever asking where they worked – mainly because we knew the answer – everyone worked together, in a studio.
Not any more…
An article titled Will Covid kill off the office was recently published in The Spectator. The authors, Rory Sutherland (Vice-Chairman Ogilvy UK) and Matthew Lesh (Head of Research, Adam Smith Institute) made some interesting points:
- On remote working: A NASA engineer envisaged ‘teleworking’ from local work centres in the 1970’s. In the 1990s, the UK had 200 ‘telecottages’: rural workspaces with computers, communications and social support. But it didn’t progress. In 2019, the UK Office of National Statistics recorded only 5.1 per cent of employees worked primarily from home. Another 12 per cent spent some of the week working from home.
- On work/life balance: The line separating work and leisure has blurred. NordVPN can see people are logging on to their computers earlier and logging off later but taking more breaks throughout the day — probably to take care of kids, exercise and walk the dog. A recent survey by Deloitte found 70 per cent of employees were enjoying the experience of working from home, while just 10 per cent have had a negative experience
- On commuting: Young employees in London are paid well, but almost half is spent on rent and travel. If they’re only needed in an office three or four days per week, the need to live centrally may diminish. (Interestingly, a University of Oxford study recorded around 250,000 people left London when lockdown started. It’s unsure how many will return.)
- On productivity and efficiency: Commuting takes immense time and energy. Commercial real estate is expensive. There is always a shortage of meeting rooms. Constant emails, rather than brief video calls, are inefficient. They found a ten-minute meeting is often the fastest way to resolve any question – especially when you don’t have to extend the meeting to justify getting everyone together.
- On the future: ‘The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,’ Barclays CEO Jes Staley is quoted saying recently. Mark Zuckerberg has announced that half of Facebook’s employees will work from home within a decade. Many businesses, from Twitter to BT call centres, have already announced their employees can opt to work from home permanently.
Is a work from home studio good for people, planet and profits?
Designers are fortunate we can work from anywhere. Not everyone can enjoy that flexibility; factory, construction, hospitality and healthcare workers must work on site. But do we love it? Most of the respondents of our DBC/NNC pre-COVID-19 survey did, here’s some of the quotes:
‘I like saving time not commuting‘
‘I like being able to walk the dog of a morning‘
‘I like the flexibility‘
‘Productivity has not reduced’
At the same time those quotes were coming in, we also had this from a full time freelancer: ‘designers think they like WFH but don’t realise how lonely it can be.’ And it’s true, eight weeks on, the gloss is wearing off for some. An experienced designer in our breakfast group shared ‘I know my mental health is under stress, I’m spending far too much time in my own head … I miss company – can’t wait to return to the studio’.
At the other end of scale, a successful Sydney agency with a beautifully-fitted CBD studio let staff choose whether they work from home or in the studio. Interestingly, the younger designers are choosing to work in the studio because their workspaces at home are not optimal (more about this later) and they are lonely, they miss the collaboration.
Like our London colleagues, not many Australian designers miss the commute, and zoom has proved an efficient and effective way to meet. So, do we need a central studio? When asked on a recent Never Not Creative ‘Asking for a Friend’ podcast, Prue Jones, Design and Creative Director, Fjord Melbourne suggested one solution might be in local, suburban meeting/collaboration hubs with great technology capabilities. Places where designers could physically meet/collaborate and present. They would be wellness hubs because collaboration and socialising enhances mental-health but they are not centres of productivity – work is done at home.
So, it’s back to the future, replicating the 200 ‘telecottages’ the UK dotted around the regions. It makes perfect sense: it would reduce commuting time which improves the environment and potentially reduces the need to continually extend transport infrastructure.
Working from home may be a double-edged sword. While less travel reduces emissions, it could increase the demand on energy to heat and cool our homes during the day.
And while designers might save travel costs, successfully working from home for any length of time does incur additional costs like chairs, desks, heating and internet access. Should employers fund some or all of the costs? A Swiss court thinks so – in late May 2020 they ordered a company to pay part of the rent of a former employee who worked from home — despite no prior agreement on compensation. So, it’s arguable design studio owners may be paying for a beautifully-fitted yet under-utilised studio while also recompensing employees for additional off-site costs.
One WFH economic benefit may be older workers staying in the workforce longer because often, they don’t want to stop working, they retire because they want to stop commuting. That would alleviate some of the financial pressures of an ageing population.
Is work from home here to stay?
Yes. Remote working is here to stay. Here’s another quote from The Spectator article:
We should not underestimate the lasting effects of this change in the ‘default settings’ of behaviour. One of the magical properties of Coca-Cola is that anywhere on Earth — from an African beach shack to a Michelin-starred Paris restaurant— you can casually ask for a Coke with the confident assumption that it is their obligation to provide it. If they don’t have it in stock, it is their fault, not yours. The same does not apply when you ask for Dr Pepper. Remote working has gone from being Dr Pepper to Coke in the space of three months.
Remote working is here to stay because humans love flexibility. We love the ability to choose when to work and when to play, and that’s exactly what remote working delivers. And it has proved profitable. Many studios we talk with are prospering.
What would a work from home studio model look like?
One potential model is not one central studio but a series of smaller satellite studios orbiting around a ‘sun’. The ’sun’ will be a combination of a person(s) (GM/producer/studio manager/studio owner/chief negotiator) and software (costings/management/productivity). The success of a studio will depend on the strength of that sun. To continuing that analogy – I do love a good analogy – the rays will glue the studio together, they will maintain consistency — consistency in costings, in quality control, in maintaining deadlines and profit margins
One of the new skills will be negotiation – balancing the flexibility to be productive when it suits with client-driven deadlines will include constant negotiation.
The other big thing is culture. My Sydney colleague puts their success down to culture — a strong, family culture that has been built over time with everyone under the one roof. Conversations I’ve had show it is more difficult to build, and maintain, a similar culture with new employees WFH. Zoom just doesn’t cut it.
A reality check
So everyone tucked up in their trackie daks and thick socks WFH sounds good short term, but there’s much to consider. Here’s just a few:
- Take confidentiality agreements.
We’ve all signed one at some stage, and many studios – especially those working in FMCG — have an ongoing commitment to file security. How does that work when a designer is working in a share home on a kitchen table with little privacy? How does a studio owner – who is ultimately responsible – monitor that?
- What about workplace OHS?
Will WorkCover insure the plethora of designers slumped on the couch using a laptop? The responsibility for the supply of a safe work practice is the studio owner. How do you manage that remotely?
- What about insurance?
If the studio 30” monitor is moved to the home of a designer to alleviate the neck and back strain (and productivity drain) working on a laptop delivers; who insures it when the cat knocks it from the kitchen table? Monitors are not deemed ‘portable’ and are often not covered by studio insurance.
- What about your current employment contract(s)? What does a full time WFH worker look like if they are not physically in your space? Does everyone become contract? WFH means new roles and responsibilities. How often do you meet and where? Which leads to…
- Recruitment. Does an ability to WFH safely, securely and sustainably become criteria for future employment for both designers and studio owners? Needs will differ from studio to studio, so having clarity around how you work is important. Which leads to…
- Physical commitments. Just how much space will a studio need for each employee? With rent often being the second highest cost after wages, maintaining just the right amount of space is imperative, but understanding just how much is needed at what time — not paying for too much but being able to maintain a safe distance when everyone is in – may be more difficult.
All this makes working from a studio look like a good solution
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After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.
The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.